Per Mathias Hogmo could well afford to smile in San Jose. The coach of the reigning world champions was happy about a draw which looked like providing a challenge well within the reach of his team. "It could have been worse," he said. "The main thing was to avoid getting Brazil in the same group, and we were lucky. There are five or six teams who could win the title, and we are fortunate to be among them."
But there is no trace of complacency in Hogmo's thinking or a feeling that his team are the favourites, even though they won the title in Sweden in 1995 with a 2:0 win over Germany in the final, or only just lost the decider in China in 1991 by the odd goal in three to the USA, after a great match. Hogmo and his girls are not prone to sitting on their laurels - they have a healthy realistic Scandinavian approach, coupled with a tendency towards understatement. "We are in the middle of re-building and that means integrating a number of new, younger players into the team. In addition, some of the experienced players are injured, but should be ready in time," he said during the Algarve Cup in Portugal last March, a tournament which he regarded as a good warm-up for the World Cup itself.
Hogmo sees other teams ahead of his own in the role of favourites: "The USA, China and Germany are all in a better position at the moment. We are not yet mature enough to take the world title again. Our team should be at its best for the Olympic tournament in Sydney." In other words: Norway is hoping to improve on its Olympic bronze in Atlanta with gold in Australia, the World Cup being a very attractive stage on the way to that goal.
"I hope that we will reach the final," says Linda Medalen, who now plays a central role in defence after many years of being a successful forward. She adds: "The World Cup is the biggest prize, ahead of the Olympics. We want to make history this summer and we'd like as many people as possible to be there at the party to watch us do it."
And in fact, there is no opponent that the Norwegian girls need to be afraid of. They are the only side with a positive record against the USA, and at the Algarve Cup they caused the Americans a lot of problems, making them give their all as they finally managed to turn a Norwegian lead into a 2:1 victory. But it was clear that in defence particularly, despite a great performance from goalkeeper Bente Nordby, the Norwegians were suspect under pressure. In attack, the young Anita Rapp has looked impressive alongside regular goal-scorer Marianne Pettersen, while in midfield it is still Hege Riise who pulls the strings.
Because the Scandinavian winter only gives way to better weather at the end of April, the team has had little time for extra preparation. They managed a couple of training camps, and two friendly matches were scheduled against Italy and Holland to round off their build-up to the World Cup.
*...will be taking part in their third World Cup. But this time round in the Asian championship they only managed third place, behind North Korea and the all-powerful Chinese. Unlike the North Koreans, the Japanese style is technically more polished and tactically more refined. This is the result of women's football having been established in the country for a long while, with a professional league going back quite a few years, during which intensive work has been done on developing quality football. Players like their goal-scoring midfield star Himare Sawa who scored seven in the massive 21:0 win over Guam, would be strong contenders for a place in any team. The same could be said of two other attacking players, Nami Otake and Tamaki Uchiyama. In 1997 there was a change in the position of head coach when Miyauchi Satoshi, a former national team player with ten years of professional experience with JEF-United, took over from Tamotsu Suzuki, and with him came an influx of young blood. There are over 25,000 active players in the country and they, like the team, would like to see Japan reach the quarter-finals as they have done on their two previous visits and to qualify for the Olympics. a lot is known about their preparation. There was a friendly match at the beginning of May against the USA and one against China, who were also invited to play a match in Japan as well.
*...would like to move up a level. "Our first objective was getting to the World Cup finals, and the next will be to finish among the top seven. We'd like to play in the Olympics," says Neill Turnbull, making his aims clear. Canada's head coach, who was in charge from 1986 to 1993, and then took over again from Sylvie Beliveau in 1996, will not find things easy. He can only help his players prepare for the competition when they are together for training; because of the size of the country there is no strong league. This means that many of the 'Canucks' have to get their experience by playing in US college teams, while others venture even further afield. Tanya Franck and Liz Smith, scorer of the Maple Leaf team's decisive goal against Mexico in the CONCACAF qualifiers, play in the German Bundesliga. Charmaine Hooper, their star forward and Canada's best known player, has played in Norway, Japan, China and of course the USA. And another name that has been around for a while but recently claimed more attention is that of Silvana Burtini. The 30-year old from British Columbia scored eight of her side's goals in the record 21:0 win over Puerto Rico in the first match. Starting at the end of May, the Canadians will be preparing intensively, with six friendly international matches against Mexico (2), USA, Brazil and Australia (2).
*...are another unknown quantity. Rated among the best of the second tier of European teams, they are taking part in a World Cup for the first time. Coached by Igor Bystritzki, they played in a tournament in Bulgaria in April, where most of the opposition was from the weaker Eastern European countries. A 0:0 against Scotland in their opening match was a bit of an embarrassment, but they made up for that with a 3:0 win over the same opponents in the final. Their domestic season only begins in April because of the hard winter, and so what happens now in the league will determine how fit they will be for the World Cup. With Canada and Japan in the same group, the battle for the first two places will be intense. The strong man of Russian women's football, Oleg Lapshin, would like to see the team qualify for the Olympics. But an internal dispute about the best way of achieving this will not have improved their chances. Because several players of the champion team Energia Woronesh went to winter training in Germany and Portugal, Lapshin cut them from the squad. But that does not have to be permanent. Energia's coach Ivan Saenko was in Portugal for the Algarve Cup as a careful observer.